Paul Ryan and the dangers of bipartisan perception

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice
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Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his potential vice president has predictably set off a storm of commentary from Republicans and Democrats alike. Notably, in these immensely divisive (so we’re told) times, the bulk of the commentary from both sides of the aisle seems to be operating on the same basic reality: that Paul Ryan is a paragon of fiscal conservatism. Obviously both sides have different opinions about the implications of this reality, but the underlying premise is the same.

The only problem is that it’s not true.

Even assuming that a Romney administration would adopt Rep. Ryan’s fiscal philosophy in its entirety, the most cursory scrutiny of that philosophy beyond all the shrill hyperbole and alarmism shows that Paul Ryan is just another big-government authoritarian, even on fiscal issues. Rep. Ryan is intelligent, articulate, and does a wonderful job wrapping himself in the mantle of a fiscal conservative, but there simply isn’t any evidence to back up the perception.

Rep. Ryan supported TARP. He supported the auto bailouts. He supported Pres. Bush’s Medicare expansion. He supported the extension of unemployment benefits. He supported massive expenditures for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul Ryan has supported trillions of dollars in Keynesian stimulus spending during his tenure in Washington. The Ryan Budget, his claim to fame, takes 30 years to achieve a balanced budget and would increase the size of government only slightly less than Barack Obama’s monstrous proposed budget over the same period.

Have we really moved so far toward the fallacies of Lord Keynes over the last 12 years that Bill Clinton looks, by today’s standards, like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster pieced together from Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek? Perhaps, but there’s another force at work here as well: the manipulative influence of bipartisan perception.

With roughly two out of every three Americans getting their news from their televisions, the power of the party system to spin its own narrative is immense (and the reward great).

Both parties have a vested interest in Paul Ryan representing small-government fiscal conservatism. The Democrats need Paul Ryan to be a fiscal conservative so they can condemn him as a draconian slasher who wants to gut essential government programs and drag our society back into the 19th century. The Republicans need to portray him as a crusader against the bloated federal budget and the perfect “bridge” pick to help Gov. Romney attract those fickle budget hawks and libertarians to his cause. The fact that Paul Ryan actually wants to drastically increase the size and scope of the federal government isn’t useful to either major party, and so it’s discarded.

The fictional narrative of “Paul Ryan the budget hawk” is not unique by any means, it should be said. Both parties are similarly interested in portraying Barack Obama as a foreign policy peacenik. That’s what Republicans need so they can accuse Obama of being “soft” on terror and showing weakness to our enemies (notwithstanding the killing of Osama bin Laden, the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi, and increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran), and so they can pretend that Mitt Romney’s foreign policy prescriptions are different in any meaningful way. That narrative also allows Democrats to tell themselves that they support Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and not Barack Obama, unilateral warmonger and assassin. The fact that President Obama has implemented the Bush Doctrine far more zealously and effectively than the staunchest neocon would have believed doesn’t fit into the narrative that both sides want to sell the American people, and so the truth finds no place in the discourse.

It’s plainly true that there is a sizable contingent of the American electorate that is desperate for change. Some are desperate for economic change: an end to the crony capitalism, corporate welfare, runaway deficits, and massive corruption inherent in economic authoritarianism. Some are desperate for the restoration of civil liberties: an end to over-incarceration, draconian immigration policies, warrantless surveillance, indefinite detention, and executive assassination. Some are desperate for a new foreign policy: an end to occupations, undeclared wars, drone terrorism, bloated defense budgets, and the bankrolling of tyranny.

The Republican and Democratic parties have a clear incentive to capitalize on that desperation, and they know it. Thus, desperate though we may be, it is essential that we not allow ourselves to be seduced by the narratives the parties construct for us rather than the truth. Paul Ryan represents none of the reforms for which so many are so desperate, no matter what your party and your television tell you.

Adam Bates received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Miami (FL) in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan in 2011.